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Annu Rev Neurosci. 1997;20:459-81.

Developmental plasticity in neural circuits for a learned behavior.

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Department of Biology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles 90089-2520, USA.


The neural substrate underlying learned vocal behavior in songbirds provides a textbook illustration of anatomical localization of function for a complex learned behavior in vertebrates. The song-control system has become an important model for studying neural systems related to learning, behavior, and development. The song system of zebra finches is characterized by a heightened capacity for both neural and behavioral change during development and has taught us valuable information regarding sensitive periods, rearrangement of synaptic connections, topographic specificity, cell death and neurogenesis, experience-dependent neural plasticity, and sexual differentiation. The song system differs in some interesting ways from some well-studied mammalian model systems and thus offers fresh perspectives on specific theoretical issues. In this highly selective review, we concentrate on two major questions: What are the developmental changes in the song system responsible for song learning and the restriction of learning to a sensitive period, and what factors explain the highly sexually dimorphic development of this system? We discuss the important role of sex steroid hormones and of neurotrophins in creating a male-typical neural song circuit (which can learn to produce complex vocalizations) instead of a reduced, female-typical song circuit that does not produce learned song.

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